Sunday, March 18, 2007
Movie Review: Disney's Pocahontas (1995)
Crush Du Jour Rating:
Dax Needs a Hug ("Oh! It had so much potential! So much wasted potential!")
Yes, yes, I went out and rented Pocahontas. What was I thinking, you ask? Well, when I rented Hunchback of Notre Dame I was expecting it to be awful, and while I ended the movie in giggles, now I can't stop listening to the soundtrack on my iPod and several key scenes are still stuck in my head. Yes, I really liked The Hunchback of Notre Dame - I enjoyed it immensely, in fact. It's pretty close to buy-worthy. And because at the moment I cannot get enough Disney, I thought I'd give Pocahontas a try. Needless of the story, it was bound to be well-animated, and the same pair who did Hunchback's fabulous music worked on this one's soundtrack, and on top of it all - I expected Hunchback to be bad and it was anything but, so I had the same expectations for this one: that it might just be wonderful, history and source material be damned!
Yeah, well, it wasn't, sorry to say. Just like Hunchback served as a thematic restyling of the earlier Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas works as a second Little Mermaid - i.e. strong-willed, curious girl finds herself attracted to a man from another world, even though her big bad Daddy thinks he's a pale-faced savage and doesn't want her to have anything to do with him. Pocahontas loves Englishman John Smith, but her father the Chief wants to banish the white men from their shores (because his shaman's niftily predicted that the white men "are ravenous wolves who devour everything in their path"), and the Governor Ratcliffe, leader of the Virginia Company (and played by Disney stalwart David Ogden Stiers - who has voiced, so far as I know, five main Disney characters: The Narrator of Beauty and the Beast as well as Cogsworth, this film's Ratcliffe as well as his toady manservant Wiggins, and the Archdeacon from Hunchback of Notre Dame) wants to dig America up for its gold.
The plot reads fine on paper, even with the standard Disney additions like Animal Friends (a mischievous racoon and a protective hummingbird), Talking Inanimate Objects (Grandmother Willow - a talking tree), and Convenient Magical Plot Devices (listening to the wind, Pocahontas can speak the King's English! Hooray!), but really, the writing is crap. It really relies on the ridiculous "Noble Savage" idea of the American Native, which is just plain dumb. Pocahontas and her friend Nakoma seem to be the only American Indians who can speak in fluid, complex sentences - even the Chief is reduced to stilted language like "you make my heart soar," and "Kocoum will make a good husband, he will build a sturdy house."
Plus, the whole "noble savage" idea that the natives are "at one with nature" is pure romanticized phony baloney. Yes, it's Disney, but I couldn't help but notice it. Like during the "Paint with All the Colours of the Wind" number, when Pocahontas shows John Smith a mother bear and her cubs, going so far as to pick one up and hand it over to him. I don't think the mother bear would make a distinction between a Caucasion or a Native American - if you picked up her babies she would rip your face off. Plus, the ending was pat and anticlimactic. Most Disney movies end with a large battle (that conveniently kills and seriously wounds no one important), but Pocahontas merely leads up to one and then cuts it off.
I mean, you have the "Savages, Savages" reprise, with the Virginia men marching off against the Native Americans, guns and bows at the ready, both sides spouting superstitious B.S. about each other ("I wonder if [white men] even bleed?" "[Native Americans] are dirty little heathens," etc.) and the Chief is seconds away from clubbing John Smith's pretty blond head in when Pocahontas runs up just in time, throws herself in front of her man, and says, "I've chosen my path." This of course, changes the Chief's mind instantly, launching him into a speech about "ending violence and hatred." The battle's cancelled, although Ratcliffe manages to get off one good shot that hits John Smith by mistake. And that's the movie. Dull, dull, dull.
The animation's nice enough, but that's natural with Disney. A lot of work seems to go into Pocahontas' hair (which again calls to mind the cool animation in The Little Mermaid that made Ariel's locks so poofy and twisty in the water) and how it flaps, flag-like, in the wind. Really, though, other than a few magical clouds, Grandmother Willow's special effects, and the sparkly "Colours of the Wind" number, there wasn't a whole lot of occasion for truly spectacular visuals.
The music was also sub-par - true, I said something similar about The Hunchback, and now I'm re-listening to "Hellfire" and "Out There" a bajillion times more than "Be Our Guest" on my iPod right now, but here the music really is unpleasant. I might like to download the score, because Alan Menken's music hasn't failed to thrill me yet, but a lot of the songs just seemed tired - particularly the strangely anemic "Virginia Company" song, which sounded a bit like a jingle for a life insurance company. "Just Around the River Bend" had some spark, and "Savages, Savages" was worth a chuckle or two (not just because when my little sister sang along to it as a baby, she'd say "Sausages, Sausages," "Cabbages, Cabbages," or "Sandwiches, Sandwiches," - but also because of snort-inducing lyrics like "beneath their milky hide, there's emptiness inside!"). Part of this was because of the singing voices - Pocahontas' (Judy Kuhn) was dead-on, but the Chief was sung by Jim Cummings - a very prolific Disney voice actor (Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, a bunch of voices from Disney's Hercules, Razoul the Chief Guard from Aladdin) - whose voice was so instantly recognizable it jarred with the Chief Powhatan's actual voice (Russell Means). John Smith's voice was also a little off - admirably, Mel Gibson actually sings some of the songs (like "The Virginia Company"), but I didn't know that until after I looked it up - the John Smith singing voice for some of the later songs (like the added "If I Never Knew You") sound a lot like Mel Gibson, only just a little bit off (for instance - Mel gives John an English accent, but while singing he sounds jarringly American), which distracted from an already horrible song. Seriously - "If I Never Knew You" pushes the bounds of saccharine Disney ballads.
There were also a few A-list (or at least A-list now) actors in the cast in this movie, and part of that is what it jarrring. Sure, it was a pleasant surprise to discover reading the credits that Christian Bale played hapless colonist Thomas, but with Mel Gibson as the male protagonist - well, that sorta screwed things up. Part of it is the star's obvious star baggage, which corrupts the character he's playing no matter how hard he tries - and part it has to do with singing. If the voice actor's unknown (or unrecognizable) one doesn't notice difference between the Talking Voice and the Singing Voice so much, but if one is a Big Star, with a voice that people recognize from hundreds of movies, than if they have to use a different Singing Voice, it's pretty noticeable. Other examples of this would be with Cary Elwes in Quest for Camelot and Patrick Dempsey in Brother Bear II.
So yeah, when filling my DVD collection, I'm not going to be purchasing Pocahontas. I'd really like to just pretend it never existed - Hunchback was just so much better, and the musical team from that is going to be working on Enchanted, so there's plenty of upcoming Disney material to make up for past mistakes.